DANIEL VAUGHAN: The United States needs more nuclear power

Earlier this year, the heads of power companies throughout the western United States warned the public about the possibility of blackouts. As a piece in Bloomberg warned in May, “If a heatwave strikes the whole region at once, the rolling outages that darkened Southern California and Silicon Valley last August will have been previews, not flukes.”

The heatwave has arrived, but it did not come alone. It also brought with it a drought.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, virtually every segment of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington is experiencing some level of drought. Vast swaths of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona are blanketed in the deepest category of drought. Adding to the concern is the likelihood that the summer of 2021 will bring extreme heat. 

Drought brings with it all sorts of issues, but from an electrical grid perspective, if any part of a state depends heavily on hydroelectric power, a drought saps the capacity and output of a hydroelectrical generator. That’s where we are now. Dams simply cannot produce the same amount of electricity at a moment when electricity usage is at its peak.

In a recent report, the Wall Street Journal wrote that “[s]ome of the region’s largest reservoirs are at historically low levels after a dry winter and spring reduced the amount of snowpack and precipitation feeding rivers and streams.”

States are hurting as a result. For California, “the California Department of Water Resources operates eight major hydroelectric facilities that are now forecast this year to be about 30% of their 10-year average generation, the agency said.”

The same is true of Colorado. The Journal reports:

The Colorado River’s Lake Powell is projected to receive only 25% of the water it normally would between April and July, according to the agency. Lake Powell is the main reservoir that feeds Nevada’s Lake Mead, where the Hoover Dam is located. The dam is one of the nation’s largest hydroelectric facilities, capable of producing enough power to serve about 1.3 million people. About 23% of its output serves Nevada, and 19% serves Arizona. Most of the remainder serves Southern California. Hoover Dam’s current generation capacity is 1,567 megawatts, down 25% from its peak of 2,074, said Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patti Aaron.

The strain on the west has spread, somewhat, to places like Texas, where residents of the state are facing their own unique power-related issues. Citizens there have feared blackouts due to the failure of several energy generators in recent weeks, causing increased strain on the state’s independent power grid.

The ideal solution to the problem is to begin reducing the strain on hydroelectrical power sources and, in turn, boost other forms of energy output.

The best alternative is nuclear power.

Nuclear power does not experience the same limitations that can affect hydroelectric power if there’s a decrease in rainfall or a drop in water sources. According to Forbes, nuclear power is consistently the safest of all energy technologies currently available.

Study after study shows the same result with regard to nuclear power plants.

The most critical payoff for nuclear power plants? Once they’re built, they produce consistent forms of cheap, usable energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), at the end of 2020, “94 nuclear reactors were operating at 56 nuclear power plants in 28 states. Thirty-two of the plants have two reactors, and three plants have three reactors. Nuclear power plants have supplied about 20% of total annual U.S. electricity since 1990.”

Nuclear technology is only improving, but harmful regulations prevent us from using this technology to achieve cheap and clean energy. We don’t have to live with the looming threat of power shortages. We have the technology.

What we lack, in the current political climate, is the will to make the necessary changes to the regulatory framework that would unleash American technology and ingenuity on a solvable problem. 

For instance, in Georgia, a new nuclear plant that’s currently under construction will reportedly provide “2,200 megawatts of carbon-free energy to the state. Upon completion, the four reactors at Vogtle will provide enough zero-emission electricity to power 1 million Georgia homes and businesses.”

We should be taking similar steps across the western United States to prevent blackouts, brownouts, and inefficiencies in the electrical grid. But, again, it’s not a matter of technology or research. It’s a matter of making it easier and cheaper to construct and take nuclear plants online. 

Strengthening the electrical grid in the United States should be a top domestic and national security goal. With more products depending on electricity or batteries, power needs naturally increase. As our needs continue to rise domestically, the same is true for defense systems. We need dependable, reliable electrical systems in place, and we need them hardened and protected against future cyber-attacks.

Nuclear power is the solution to the electrical problems we’re currently facing. Nuclear power could also provide sustainable energy for whatever issues we face in the future, so it’s crucial that we begin to maximize its use.